Chef Cara Stadler is the chef/owner of Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Bao Bao Dumpling House in Portland, Maine. Her locally influenced Asian cuisine has earned the 27 year old chef a nomination for the James Beard Rising Star Award for Tao Yuan, and she has made Food & Wine’s list of 10 Best New Chefs. I discovered Bao Bao Dumpling House during a food crawl of Portland and I have been thinking about her Kung Pow Chicken Dumplings and Bean Curd Buns ever since.
Chef Stadler generously gave me time out of her incredibly busy schedule to chat about the Maine dining scene, her inspirations, her plans for the future, and the James Beard awards. In my mind, she embodies “a chef age 30 or younger who displays an impressive talent and who is likely to make a significant impact on the industry in years to come” – the description of the James Beard Rising Star Award. As a Mainer, I am so incredibly happy that the James Beard Foundation is recognizing her and I will be seriously rooting for her at the awards on Monday.
What made you choose Maine as the place to open an restaurant? I know that you summered in Maine growing up, but you have traveled the world (she studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, had a dinner club in China, and worked in Singapore) what made you pick Maine?
Family is a big part of why I moved up here. Something I am coming to realize is that we are really quite spoiled in Maine for raw product, for produce. The farms here are phenomenal. The fish is unbeatable, cold clean waters and highly regulated. There are all these things in place to keep it sustainable.
At the core, the people who are here, and the food that is here, is phenomenal. The farmers, the cheese makers, the people who brew beer here, we are lucky to be around people who care about making delicious food. As a Chef, I couldn’t be more excited to be in that environment.
The Maine restaurant scene is hot and rapidly developing. What do you think is coming next? Do you think that the Maine food scene will continue to proliferate within the next couple years?
I hope that more people come, and I think there are a lot of really amazing restaurants that are here now. And good restaurants are helping each other out by making Maine a destination for foodies to visit. At the end of the day everyone is being supportive of each other in bringing Maine to the forefront.
Does that mean that there a good camaraderie between chef’s in Maine?
Oh yeah absolutely. There are so many amazing Chef’s here. It is such a pleasure and honor to work here.
What is the vision behind your restaurants, and how does Tao Yuan differ from Bao Bao Dumpling House?
Tao is small plates with Asian influences, and it is a constantly changing menu. It is a more in depth and longer dining experience. Bao Bao is a fast casual dumpling house. It is very straightforward and the menu doesn’t vary as much, and also the price point is a lot more accessible.
Tao Yuan is in Brunswick, and Bao Bao Dumpling House is in Portland, so how do you juggle that?
I am at both everyday they are open. I have always been commuting to Tao from Portland because we pick up everything by hand. We pick up all our fish and our produce. We do buy cases of citrus and some stuff, but in the summer there are two Portland farmer’s markets and two Brunswick farmer’s markets and we are there everyday. We pick up most of our produce by hand. And all the fish comes from here [Portland]. We have to be in Portland every morning anyway, all the Asian markets are here. Everything is here.
I have an incredible team. This wouldn’t be possible without a tremendous amount of support from the people around me.
What is your source of inspiration? Are you ever forced into being creative because the ingredients for traditional Asian cuisine are not available in Maine?
I would say that most dishes are inspired by what we find at the markets. We are at the market four days a week. We buy what we see that looks delicious, and if we want to change a dish we change a dish at Tao. At Bao Bao we put on specials, and if people really like them we put them onto the menu. We try to do a lot of fun things but at the end of the day at Bao Bao it is all about the dumplings.
Are you planning to visit any restaurants while you are in Chicago?
I am there for a day. I have reservations at both Fat Rice and Ruxbin. Chicago is a huge city with so many restaurants and there is only so much time.
You burst onto the scene. You are so young, you have achieved so much success. It’s inspiring that you have two restaurants and have received such accolades. I know you have some big plans for the future, I know you are working on a greenhouse, are there any other big plans?
The aquaponic greenhouse is the biggest plan and it is a big plan. We are starting construction late spring/early summer, really soon actually, in the next few months. We can’t find a lot of ingredients up here, or we can but they need to be shipped in from afar, and for certain fresh products they cost a tremendous amount because they need to be overnight shipped. That’s never an ideal situation for us. So we are going to grow a lot of things that we can’t find here. And then we are also going to grow things that are great for an aquaponic system. There is a lot of great produce here that is not worth trying to compete with, because like I said the farms here are amazing. We want to aim for things that people aren’t growing, particularly Chinese greens. There aren’t many fresh Chinese greens being grown up in Maine.
What advice would you give young people with lofty goals and the goal of entrepreneurship?
I would say that it is a tremendous amount of hard work, but it is totally worth it. It is a lot of time and energy and stress, you have to really want it. It is just a lot of work. But in this industry, I am so happy that I started young. At some point my body is going to say I am pushing too hard. I love what I do. I spent a lot of time working but I love it. I have built the team that I have and I want to grow with everyone working with me and help grow.
When you are not working what do you do to relax?
I love to go out to eat. My partner and I are going to start doing some gardening soon. We have a balcony and we will probably grow a bunch of things. I try to have down time to relax. My partner bakes a lot of bread, she does lots of baking at home. When you work at an Asian restaurant, you don’t really cook anything else. It is sometimes nice to cook other cuisines, we will make Tortilla Soup for the weekend.
Do you think that Maine is going to keep fostering foods from other cultures? Maine is not a very diverse state and I think that Mainers have this curiosity and they love embracing food from other cultures. Do you think that there will be more and more restaurants from different cultures and cuisines coming into the state?
I hope so. It is nice to see a little more variety. Now there are a bunch of Mediterranean restaurants and it has been really nice. I would like to see more food regions popping up. You know, Piccolo in town [Portland] is Italian food and is not your American Italian joint at all, and it is phenomenal. It is nice to see more specific regional cuisines coming from all over the world.
When the James Beard awards came up, Chef Stadler humbly said that she doesn’t think it is her year, but I would love to see the award go to someone with such a pride for Maine and an appreciation for her team and suppliers.
Huge thanks to Chef Stadler. I will be at the James Beard Awards next Monday rooting for her. This is the first year that the awards are being held in Chicago, and I am thrilled. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram for live updates from the awards.
* The photos are from Bao Bao Dumpling House which is a must try restaurant if you go to Portland, Maine.